Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe, a seven-part investigative podcast by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, and “Unrelinquished: When Abusers Keep Their Guns,” a documentary film on domestic violence homicides produced in partnership with Al Jazeera English, have been named winners of the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards in the radio and domestic television categories, respectively.
Mississippi Goddam followed Reveal host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones as they examined the suspicious death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a 17-year-old Black student and one of the top high school football recruits in the country, who was killed during an early morning traffic stop in Lucedale, Mississippi, in December 2008.
A grand jury ruled that Johnson accidentally shot himself. But as Letson and Jones began digging into the evidence more than a decade later, they uncovered numerous flaws in the handling of the case by medical examiners, the district attorney’s office and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation that cast serious doubt on the initial findings.
In dozens of interviews, including with many key sources who had never spoken to investigators, Letson and Jones sought to place Johnson’s killing in the broader context of institutional racism and discrimination in the South. The resulting series is both an indictment of Mississippi’s death investigation system and a poignant narrative of how justice fails Black people in America.
“Unrelinquished,” produced in collaboration with Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” program, is part of Reveal reporter Jennifer Gollan’s multiplatform project, When Abusers Keep Their Guns, examining why so many domestic violence homicides involve illegal weapons. The film focuses on the harrowing case of 22-year-old Jazmine Willock, whose boyfriend, Taris Ford-Dillard, shot and killed her in Tucson, Arizona, in 2018 before turning the gun on himself.
As a convicted abuser, Ford-Dillard was prohibited from having a firearm under federal law. But as Gollan’s investigation found, Ford-Dillard was no fluke; scores of Americans are killed every year by domestic abusers who have weapons that should have been relinquished or seized. The film also pinpointed the biggest systemic factor in such slayings: Federal and state gun bans are largely enforced on an honor system that relies on abusers to disarm themselves. Police, prosecutors and judges routinely fail to take the most basic steps to protect victims and their families from abusers who keep their guns, often with deadly consequences.
A screening of “Unrelinquished” on Capitol Hill last fall drew dozens of lawmakers, gun violence experts and domestic violence advocates and helped drive important changes in federal law. The newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, signed by President Joe Biden in March, includes bipartisan provisions prompted by Gollan’s reporting that give state and local law enforcement broader powers to investigate and prosecute abusers who possess guns unlawfully.
Established in 1968, the RFK Journalism Awards honor outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Robert F. Kennedy’s concerns, including human rights, social justice and the power of individual action in the United States and around the world.
For Mississippi Goddam, Letson and Jones reported and produced the radio series. Kevin Sullivan served as series editor and executive producer. Michael I Schiller was the series producer. Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda provided sound design, engineering and composing. Steven Rascón was the production assistant. Amy Mostafa was the production manager. Rosemarie Ho and Nikki Frick were the fact checkers.
For “Unrelinquished,” Gollan reported and co-produced the documentary, with Amina Waheed of “Fault Lines” serving as director and producer. Amanda Pike and Laila Al-Arian served as executive producers. Adrienne Haspel was editor and editorial producer. Joel Van Haren was director of photography. Darya Marchenkova was associate producer and fact checker. Katharine Mieszkowski was a consulting producer. Narda Zacchino was a digital editor.
Additional help on both projects came from Reveal Features Editor Nina Martin, Executive Editor Andrew Donohue, general counsel Victoria Baranetsky and Editor in Chief Sumi Aggarwal. Esther Kaplan was editor at large.